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Press release

Civil Rights Group to Colorado’s Highest Court: Zoo Elephants Are Entitled to a Hearing and the Right to Bodily Liberty

~ Supported by elephant experts, the case is the first filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) in the state ~

~ The Colorado Supreme Court is the second US state high court to rule on an appeal concerning a nonhuman animal’s right to bodily liberty ~

May 22, 2024—Denver, CO—The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has filed an opening brief in the Colorado Supreme Court, urging it to reverse a District Court ruling that denied five elephants a hearing on the lawfulness of their imprisonment in the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (CMZ). 

The District Court ruled in December 2023 that elephants Jambo, Kimba, LouLou, Lucky, and Missy can’t invoke the protections of habeas corpus because they’re not human. Drawing on fundamental principles of justice, the science of elephant cognition and behavior, and centuries of case law, the NhRP filed a habeas petition in June 2023 that sought recognition of the elephants’ fundamental right to bodily liberty, followed by their release to an elephant sanctuary accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries

“It’s the judicial branch’s responsibility to tend to the common law to achieve justice,” said Jake Davis, the NhRP’s lead attorney in Colorado. “It’s not justice to deny autonomous beings the right to liberty simply because of their species membership. As even the District Court acknowledged, the science is clear that our elephant clients are autonomous beings who are suffering immensely and would be better off at a sanctuary. The Colorado courts either care about autonomy, as protected by the historic common law writ of habeas corpus, or they don’t.”

Jambo, Kimba, LouLou, Lucky, and Missy were born in the wild in Africa, taken from their herds when they were babies, and imported to the US in the 1970s and 1980s. Among the elephant experts who have submitted expert declarations in support of the elephants’ right to bodily liberty and release to a sanctuary is Dr. Bob Jacobs, a former professor of neuroscience at Colorado College who has studied the neurological harm of zoo captivity on elephants. He has personally observed the CMZ elephants engaging in behavior indicative of chronic distress and trauma, including rocking, swaying, and head bobbing. Elephants living freely in their natural habitats have never been observed exhibiting such behaviors. “From a neural perspective,” Dr. Jacobs writes in his declaration, “imprisoning large mammals and putting them on display is undeniably cruel.”

The NhRP’s appeal marks the first time Colorado’s highest court will be in a position to rule on arguments concerning a nonhuman animal’s right to liberty. In addition to requesting that the Colorado Supreme Court reverse the District Court’s ruling, the NhRP is asking for the case to be remanded to the District Court, with instructions to hold a hearing on the merits of the NhRP’s petition. 

In the NhRP’s case on behalf of an elephant named Happy held in captivity in the Bronx Zoo, the New York Court of Appeals became the first US state high court to hear arguments concerning a habeas corpus petition brought on behalf of a nonhuman animal. Historian Jill Lepore described it as “the most important animal-rights case of the 21st century.” That litigation concluded in 2022, with Judges Rowan Wilson and Jenny Rivera issuing landmark dissenting opinions in favor of recognizing the availability of habeas corpus to certain nonhuman animals. These opinions are cited in the NhRP’s opening brief.

In its brief, the NhRP also criticizes the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo for not deciding on its own to release the elephants to a sanctuary, as some other zoos have done in recognition of elephants’ need for greater freedom than a zoo can provide: “Having refused to do what is morally right and just for the elephants, it is the Zoo that has demonstrated a lack of dedication to Missy, Kimba, Lucky, LouLou, and Jambo, beyond exploiting these extraordinary beings for profit.” The NhRP has offered to drop the case if CMZ were to release the elephants to a sanctuary. 

“The Colorado Supreme Court has the utmost responsibility for ensuring that the state’s common law remains in step with science, evolving societal norms, and the fundamental principles of justice, liberty, and equality,” Davis said. “With this responsibility in mind, we hope the Court will take this opportunity to reject the archaic, unjust status quo that prohibits Jambo, Kimba, LouLou, Lucky, and Missy from challenging their pernicious confinement.”

The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo will have the opportunity to respond to the NhRP’s opening brief. The NhRP will request oral argument.

  • Download the NhRP’s brief. Note: Along with the brief, the NhRP has filed a request for an extended word count. If the Court does not grant this request, the NhRP will file a shorter brief. 
  • Visit the elephants’ client page including the elephants’ biographies and information about the exhibit.
  • Read the NhRP’s response to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s initial statement on this case. 
  • Access photos and videos of the elephants for use in media coverage (credit Molly Condit).


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